FREE PRESS: Journalists in Dakar march for press freedom and against the precariousness of the press and media sector in Senegal.Picture: Seyllou /AFP
Independent media and journalists in Africa have successfully pushed for democratic and social change, whether to help bring about the end of colonialism, or to bring about the end of rule of autocratic post-independence governments and leaders.

More recently, they have helped push for democratisation, whether in the North African uprisings or the more citizen-led drive for democratisation in francophone African countries.

Independent African media and journalists have done much to educate and enlighten Africans about the world, their countries and societies, raise their political consciousness, and engender common national identities beyond narrow ethnic identities.

They have done much to expand Africa’s democratic space for people to access information, express their views, debate policies and hold government and leaders accountable. They have also advanced the acceptance of differences, whether cultural, ethnic, regional and political.

They have helped inculcate the beginnings of a democratic culture in many African societies. They have encouraged the overturning of prejudices, increasing acceptance for ethnic, gender and social equality. The media have helped promote social justice for the poor.

They have discouraged corruption, increased public accountability and transparency; respect for the rule of law. They have helped to build more inclusive, more democratic and more diverse national identities. Since independence, African countries with relatively independent media have done consistently better in terms of quality democracy, development, and social, ethnical and sexual equality, than their more oppressive peers.

Yet, independent media across the continent are under attack from African governments and leaders. Even countries where democracy, development and tolerance of difference are of relatively better quality, such as Cape Verde, Seychelles and Botswana, media freedom has declined.

Governments and leaders that came to power after autocratic regimes were pushed out in North Africa during the “Arab Spring” uprisings are now suppressing independent media and journalists.

Even non-government groups in Africa are increasingly killing, attacking and suppressing journalists. Al-Shabaab in Somalia has assassinated a number of independent journalists and shut down many media outlets.

In 2012, Islamist group Boko Haram bombed the Abuja and Kaduna offices of Nigeria’s This Day newspaper, for the paper’s critical reporting of its activities.

The World Press Freedom Index reported “a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom” and “a climate of fear and tension combined with increasing control over newsrooms by governments and private-sector interests”.

Foreign businesses are also increasingly attacking independent journalists and media for exposing their collusion with autocratic governments, destruction of locals' livelihoods and the environment, and siphoning money out of African countries. Last month, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression reported that journalists in Tanzania were facing prosecution for reporting on poor conditions on mines operated by Acacia Mining.

Amnesty International said the intimidation of journalists sent a “frightening and intimidating” message. “Across the region, journalists have been targeted simply for exposing the truth,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty’s Africa regional director.

African governments and leaders are increasingly starving independent media institutions of advertising, information and access. They have also tried to block foreign funding, support and resources. They have harassed independent media institutions and journalists to reveal their sources and expose whistle-blowers.

Eritrea, where President Issayas Afeworki has ruled since 1993, remains one of the most tightly controlled societies in Africa. Independent media, journalists and the distribution of information from inside the country to the outside are brutally quashed.

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza closed down all independent media following the attempted coup in May 2015, killed dozens of journalists, and forced more than 100 journalists to flee into exile fearing for their lvies.

Rwandan media and journalists face government censorships, harassment and self-censorship.

Many colonial governments suppressed, banned and even killed independent media and journalists, when they reported on official wrongdoing, educated citizens about their rights or called for freedom of the oppressed.

The irony is that after independence, the new governments and presidents suppressed the very same media and journalists.

Many African countries have retained colonial era laws that criminalise media exposure of government corruption and wrongdoing. Some have introduced new laws to suppress critical reporting of the government.

Last year, Tanzanian President John Magufuli introduced the Media Services Act which criminalises journalism without a government permit. It replaced the self-regulation media authority with a government one with wide discretionary powers to shut down the media and jail journalists.

In 2009, Ethiopia introduced an anti-terrorism law which saw journalists being prosecuted. And the government blocked the establishment of independent media institutions.

After independence, many African countries nationalised colonial or government-owned media. These new governments demanded that independent media and journalists – with whom they fought side by side against colonialism – uncritically support the new governments.

African independence movements-turned-governments have plundered their countries’ resources, lived the same bling lifestyles as the colonial elite, and governed as autocratically.

African countries are unlikely to improve the quality of their development, governance and equality of citizenship without independent media and journalists.

Surveys, including one by Afrobarometer, show that the majority of ordinary Africans support the media’s watchdog role, and view the independent media as effective in exposing corruption and poor decision-making.

African institutions, such as the AU, Pan-African Parliament, and African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, must intervene to stop governments from prosecuting independent media and journalists for reporting the truth. Western media institutions must partner with independent African media institutions and report on their suppression.

This would help to strengthen independent African journalism.

William Gumede is chairman of  Democracy Works Foundation. He is the author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg)